Donizetti: Anna Bolena. Sondra Radvanovsky (Anna); Keri Alkema (Giovanna); Bruce Sledge (Percy); Christian Van Horn (Enrico VIII); Allyson McHardy (Smeton); Thomas Goerz (Rochefort); Jonathan Johnson (Hervey). Corrado Rovaris, conductor; Stephen Lawless, director. Four Seasons Centre, 7:30 p.m., April 28, 2018.
In a season of superlatives, the Canadian Opera Company (COC) saves the best for last, in its season-ending production of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. Last staged by the COC in 1984 starring the late great Dame Joan Sutherland in the title role, with James Morris as Enrico and Judith Forst as Giovanna, it was an important milestone in the history of the COC.
Thirty-four years later, the COC is revisiting this piece. British director Stephen Lawless, who also directed Maria Stuarda (2010) and Roberto Devereux (2014), is back, in a set design inspired by Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. This production, now owned by the COC, was originally built by Dallas Opera. The raison d’etre of this show is Canadian-American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, considered the definitive interpreter of the Three Queens of our time.
The soprano also has the distinction of being the first to tackle all three in a single Met season. At the COC, she has already wowed audiences in Roberto Devereux. Now we get to experience her Anna. Even though Maria Stuarda was staged only 8 years ago with the wonderful Italian soprano Serena Farnocchia, a revival for Radvanovsky might just be in order. Hey, I can dream, can’t I?
For Bolena, the COC has surrounded Radvanovsky with great colleagues: Keri Alkema (Giovanna), Christian Van Horn (Enrico VIII), and Bruce Sledge (Percy). With the huge publicity surrounding this show, could the COC deliver? Would it live up to the hype? There was some trepidation when Radvanovsky skipped the final dress rehearsal. Was she under the weather, or was she just saving it for the big sing? It was with great anticipation — and some anxiety — that I attended opening night.
Well, I needn’t have worried. Radvanovsky was in top form, singing with a kaleidoscope of tone colours, completely secure and beautifully focused. From the softest high pianissimos — her trademark — to the most powerful forte passages, I felt I was pinned to my seat by her sound. In the very long final Mad Scene, a huge sing, the soprano was indefatigable, maintaining beauty of tone to the end. Far from a one-dimensional Queen, her Anna was complex, offering up a full range of emotions — anger, fear, fury, sadness, irony, vulnerability, resignation, and everything in between. Totally remarkable.
Keri Alkema also gave a wonderful performance. Her Tosca, Vitellia and Giulietta at the COC did not prepare me for her incredible Jane Seymour. Her warm and gleaming soprano was a pleasure to the ear, and her portrayal was entirely sympathetic. Giovanna is usually sung by a high mezzo, but in this case, Alkema’s timbre is even a touch lighter than Radvanovsky’s. The two blended beautifully in their duet and they played off each other beautifully.
Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn was a vocally commanding and dramatically (almost) likeable Enrico VIII. Though the role has no aria, it has four big scenes and Van Horn held his own against the star power of the two divas and everyone else. A tall and handsome Enrico VIII is rather unusual, and his characterization wasn’t nearly as nasty as some others I’ve seen. Only in his last scene was he made to look bearded and a bit paunchy.
Bel Canto tenor Bruce Sledge, last heard in Maometto II, was a vocally impressive Percy, his bright, ringing sound has amazing “squillo” something that’s in short supply these days. Canadian mezzo Allyson McHardy’s low mezzo with its gleaming tone was perfect as Smeton. Physically she’s quite petite, making the character more boyish and lovelorn than usual. Veteran Canadian bass-baritone Thomas Goerz was heard to advantage as Rochefort; and young American tenor Jonathan Johnson made an auspicious company debut as Hervey.
If the production looks familiar, that’s because it is! We all saw it four years ago in Roberto Devereux — Globe Theatre-inspired, functional, noncontroversial, straightforward, and it does the job. The nine huge, movable wall panels functioned well on opening night compared to the dress rehearsal, but the Irish wolfhounds that were supposed to accompany Enrico’s entrance were nowhere to be seen. It was later that I found out the canines were released from their duties. I guess they didn’t behave as well as the wall panels. Such is show biz!
Musically, the piece was in good hands with Italian maestro Corrado Rovaris, who is making a welcome return after his excellent Roberto Devereux four years ago. He led the COC Orchestra and Chorus in an idiomatic, well-paced, if somewhat middle-of-the-road performance. Anna Bolena isn’t exactly short, lasting three and a half hours with one intermission. But when the singing is this good, one almost wished it were longer. Toronto audiences aren’t known for being particularly demonstrative, but they showered the artists with bravos. That said, if we were in Munich or Berlin or Vienna, the applause would have lasted three times longer. A resplendent end to a memorable COC season.